We were walking from one hotel building to another, in the unlit pitch darkness of a 10pm Spring evening. Myself, and two of the housekeepers. We’d been walking in silence; they with trolleys of cleaning materials and me with a few bags of clean linen over my shoulders. Apropos of nothing, one of them turned to me in an effort to break the quiet and said “I can’t believe how your former employers used to treat you…”
I loved my old job. I just hated the people I worked for. I was the sole cleaner for a family-run engineering company. I was in charge of the factory floor, plus the canteen, the offices, the toilets and any other ad hoc duties that occurred to The Family, such as gardening or plumbing. I knew that entire building inside out. And it was spotless. In spite of having to clear up after twenty machines spitting out metal and oil, plus twenty young men who worked them, my floors were immaculate. Okay, I know in the grand scheme of things that this doesn’t matter. Compared to the brilliant minds who recently delved deeper into The Big Bang, my work is insignificant. But speaking as someone who ultimately wants to write for a living, it means that no job I have ever taken has received any kind of preferential respect over the rest of my CV. I’ve worked in a bank and I’ve worked as a cleaner. Despite the different uniforms and skills involved, the two disparate positions are one and the same in my eyes.
The people I worked for in that engineering company were corrupt to the extreme. Personally, in terms of their finances, and also in the way they treated people. Verbal and sometimes even physical abuse was the norm. You never received praise – you knew you were doing a good job if you weren’t fired. Many staff arrived, realised what was going on, and swiftly left. For the rest of us, there was no option. Long hours, and the constant threat of being fired, kept us under that roof and under the glare of that family’s eyes. I was spared from most of it by virtue of being good at my job. I ended up being there for three and a half years. Scoff if you want to, but you try keeping a manufacturing warehouse clean when you are working on your own. It is far more involving and complicated than simply pushing a broom around for ten hours a day.
I knew that my old job had been a unique situation. I knew this because I hadn’t worked in such an oppressive atmosphere before. I knew this because friends and loved ones would hear about my tales from the workplace and gasp. Yet life went on. I continued breaking my back, working long hours, keeping everything as neat and tidy as possible to avoid having to duck from a flying wrench or a thrown calculator.
I still find my new job strange. It isn’t the work. The job of being a Houseman in a hotel is hard graft. It’s lots of hauling big bags of towels and linen up four flights of stairs. My shoulders carry red bra straps from carrying the bedding. Often I stay behind for a few hours past my scheduled times to help out. The difference is in the praise that I receive. The friendly reception. People talking to me. My bosses thanking me at the end of every shift, even when I know I’ve made mistakes because I’m still new and nervous.
On my first or second day, someone asked me about my previous job and I told them. I mentioned it in a very matter-of-fact way in a conversation that might’ve lasted less than 30 seconds. I didn’t think about how best to shock them or how I was going to get the message across. I just told the truth, with the nonchalance of someone who knows the truth intimately. Their jaws hit the floor and I’m fairly certainly a couple of them didn’t believe me. I ignored it.
It took until a couple of weeks later, and the beginning of this entry. I’m walking to the other hotel building with a couple of colleagues. One of them mentions about my time at my previous employer. She can’t believe how my former employers used to treat me. And then she goes into details. The details that I had spoken about openly to the rest of the office.
And suddenly, after all these years, it hits me. Hearing it from a completely new, slightly skeptical voice, I think to myself, “you’re right…. I can’t believe it either.” When you are in the eye of the storm, you cannot appreciate the strength of the winds. Yet suddenly, as they said what they did, back to me on that walk between the hotels, I realised how absurd it sounded. Oh sure, it was completely true and more besides that I didn’t bore them with, but they don’t know that. Did you really work in a place where spanners and wrenches were hurled at employee’s heads with life-threatening velocity? Did you really work in an environment where the supervisors had been in prison for violent crime offenses?
As bizarre as it sounds, one of the aspects of my current job that I struggle with is praise. Even as I fuck something up the managers praise me and tell me that it’ll be fine. My past tells me that it won’t be fine, that I’ll be ducking some tools soon making a vicious flightpath towards my head. It took a pleasant working environment to make me realise how bad my previous one was. Now I am happy but confused, friendly but aloof, positive but constantly self critical.
Long shadows, longer scars.